Tuesday, September 7, 2010

9/7 Why Beethoven?

Why Beethoven?

The short answer is:

Because his music moves me.


This being my 51st blog post (originally 50th), maybe it’s time to write about how I fell under the Beethoven spell. Perhaps some auto-biographical information would be in order…

Kids, You can be like this!
As a youngster, two of my most important musical discoveries were Pink Floyd (my first bought record was The Brick in the Wall 45rpm) and Van Halen. Pink Floyd introduced me to the idea of music as emotional expression. Van Halen inspired me to start playing electric guitar and to regard music with more than just passive consumption. After many years of playing guitar in many bands from bar blues to heavy metal to alt-rock, I gradually got into jazz and progressive rock.

Rage for a Lost Penny Cover art
It was probably during this time that I first noticed Beethoven as more than a ‘boring classical guy”. For 99 cents I picked up an LP featuring “Rage for a Lost Penny” on the cover. I guess any album with the words “rage” and “lost” sounded cool and counter-culture. I enjoyed it, but solo piano just couldn’t compare to drums and distorted guitar for me. I had a very brief flirtation with Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, and eventually filed B. away as the “Eddie Van Halen of pianists" (probably because of the 3rd movement of the Moonlight Sonata).

Stockhausen. Naked.
From alt-rock, I then embarked on a very long journey into contemporary classical, experimental music and free-improvisation. My heroes during this time were people like Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage, John Zorn, Evan Parker, Otomo Yoshihide, Derek Bailey, etc… During this period, whatever was most outrageous or explosive was cool, and as far as I knew Beethoven only wrote a few piano sonatas called Moonlight, Pathetique and Waldstein, which were good for taking naps to (I did own a Bernstein Rite of Spring (LSO) and that was my only classical CD for several years). I also became a huge fan of film music, ethnic music, Japanese noise music, death metal, flamenco, anime/game soundtracks, lounge music, digital hardcore, trash-rock and whatever else was new and interesting. I eventually noticed that with so many genres of music on my iPod, I had no Classical music on there. That seemed odd, almost as if I was afraid to put some on there. Yet nothing really “came across my desk” that merited a coveted spot on my massively-huge 20 gigabyte iPod.

Years pass and I come across EMI’s “20th Century Masterpieces - 100 Years of Classical Music” 16 CD box set. I’d lived mostly in the 20th century, and yet I hadn’t heard much from these composers, so I decided to really sit down and give these a dedicated listen. Which means not while web surfing or talking on the phone or reading a book. After a couple run-throughs of these discs I realized that classical music was not boring at all and that much film music that I loved derived from 20th century classical orchestral music. Holst? Orff? Debussy? Major movie hits. I became a huge junkie for early 20th century (anything pre-Cage/Stockhausen actually, and excluding musique concrete of course). Then I realized that there was about 300 years of classical music before 1900, so I went to the Strand bookstore and picked up a bunch of “survey of Western music” type books for cheap. I listened to a few “Top 100 Most Essential Classical Hits” sets. 

Bernstein.  Leonard Bernstein.
All this effort required quite a huge leap of faith since for almost my entire life I was conditioned to regard this music as “dusty”, ”old-fashioned” and just plain “dead”. None of my friends listened to this stuff, so I felt like an outsider even with my “outsider-music” friends. However a HUGE help was watching Leonard Bernstein's Young People’s Concerts (which I borrowed from the NY Public Library). Lenny showed me that classical music was actually exciting as hell and loads of fun with the proper guidance. He even did an Omnibus program on John Cage! So if he could love Xenakis as much as Beethoven then why couldn’t I? (Of course I later realized that he didn’t really like modern music all that much).  Then the big one hit. I found out that you can get an 85 disc box set of Beethoven’s entire ouevre for the price of 7 Justin Bieber CDs.

Dating this post for future generations.
Up until this point I could only recognize 4 of the nicknamed piano sonatas, Fur Elise, the first 8 bars of the 5th Symphony and the Ode to Joy theme. Here were 85 records by the same guy covering an almost 40-year period. It was a challenge to listen to all of it (and I did, twice) but I reasoned that this guy’s records must still be around for a reason. I have to admit most of the first run through was a complete blur, but I found myself coming back to the symphonies and string quartets. Eventually a few more of the piano sonatas started to stick in my mind. Weird things like Wellington’s Victory with sound effects and the Fantasia in Gm Op. 77 were memorable. The Grosse Fugue string quartet – now that sounded like 20th Century music to me! Eventually I narrowed down my list of favorite composers to a dozen. These remained mostly 20th century composers: Ravel, Stravinsky, Debussy, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Bartok…but one 19th century composer, Beethoven, who was my favorite of them all. Somehow all of my favorite pieces composed between 1600 and 1900 had Ludwig van Beethoven’s name next to it. Sometimes I would try to give myself Beethoven moratoriums for a couple days at a time, since his work was so pervasive in my listening. I gave up.

More, please.
So why Beethoven? I think it’s because of all the composers in history he wrote with the most humanity. That’s why his music is so timeless. His work has equal amounts of emotion and intellect. Sometimes a passage will seem simple and emotive, but upon further examination it’s actually an incredibly well-put together harmonic framework that evokes just such simple feelings. It’s said his music straddles the “Classicists” with the “Romanticists”. In film music (at least until the last decade or so) the most prevalent sound is Romantic or Classical. B’s music could easily fit into a modern film. In fact it sometimes is (“Knowing”). There is an incredible amount of variety of emotion in his music, including humor (Opus 31 piano sonatas), tragedy (Egmont), gothic drama (Ghost Trio) to nationalistic fanfares (Wellington's Siege) and even some feelings which can't easily be expressed in mere words (Opus 111 piano sonata).  He was also a rule-breaker. What was exciting to me about experimental music was that it broke rules and ran riot with expectation. I realized that the biggest rule-breaker of them all was Beethoven. I just had to LISTEN. There are many more reasons why I love Beethoven and every day I post one of them here.

Why a Beethoven blog?  When I've told friends about how much I love Beethoven, the most common response is, "I don't know much about him".  That's one of the reasons why I started this blog.  Also it's a lot of fun!

So why did I avoid classical music until now? Why was such a huge ‘leap of faith’ required to give this music a fair listen? My opinion:

Young people today trade in the language of pop and rock music. No electric guitar or drums in classical. Also most lyrics are sung in Italian or German.

Classical music is regarded as uncool by most people under 30 who are not in Juilliard-type schools. That’s the stuff your grandparents are into.  

Classical music is not very well performed, or at least not performed with the vigor that it should be for modern audiences. It is far too respectful of traditions designed for audiences from 100 years ago.

Live classical music (performed well) is extremely expensive to attend and not easy to find outside of large cities.

Classical music is played on instruments that evoke feelings of high-brow snobbishness. And everyone wears corporate business attire, both on stage and in the audience. Not a cool image (B himself dressed down in wig-less rebel style).  Actually on stage it's more like butler attire....

The most well-known classical movie is “Amadeus” which resulted in Mozart being known for flatulence. Beethoven is known as “the deaf one.” Or the dog.

Music education is too focused on producing a perfect performer before teaching a child to actually enjoy the music. Friends of mine who have actually studied and performed classical music as an adolescent tend to associate those experiences with punishment and public humiliation. Essentially they were traumatized into hating classical music.

Fix all of the above and classical music will not be dying.  Buy lots of Beethoven CDs and go see some concerts.  Pay attention, like you would when reading a book or watching a film.  Don't hear it, Listen to it.




  1. I found the Beethoven death image quite confronting and preferred not to see it!! Don't agree about the formal,snobbish element of music as the same applies to opera, ballet and live theatre. The trick is to get to kids FIRST in school and that just isn't happening.

  2. Awesome Ed! I've been extremely into Beethoven recently, after being obsessed with Bach prior to that. All after having "quit" classical music for a time.

    Beethoven was a genius whose music continues to boggle me, and thrill. The way he takes a motive into so many places, moving through keys like water, is just breathtaking.

    I'm looking forward to reading more of your blog!
    Julianne Carney

  3. Hi Julianne! Thanks for comment, I feel exactly the same way. I envy that you play violin - there's virtually no Beethoven for guitar (tho I'm working on rectifying that situation). You just reminded me that I "quit" classical music as well after I played clarinet for half a year in elementary school. I didn't enjoy it. I must have blocked it out, I forgot to mention it in my main post!